(Sept. 3, 1846-Jan. 24, 1903). Robert Bruce Bagby was born in Virginia to formerly enslaved parents who had purchased their freedom. In 1857, he moved with his mother, father, and five brothers to Oxford, Ohio, a community with a small free Black population.

During the Civil War, Bagby served in the Twenty-eighth Regiment U. S. Colored Troops (USCT), which was the only African American regiment organized in Indiana for the war. He ended his service in the 28th as orderly sergeant of Company E.

From 1867 to 1870, Bagby attended the Preparatory Department of Oberlin College (later known as Oberlin Academy Preparatory School). In 1835, Oberlin was the first predominantly white college to admit African American students. He continued his studies at Oberlin College as an undergrad from 1870 to 1874 and received a Bachelor of Arts (A.B.).

After graduation, Bagby moved to Indianapolis and became principal of indianapolis public school No. 17-Booker T. Washington, established specifically for African Americans. Two of his brothers, Benjamin and James, followed his lead and became principals of Black schools in Indianapolis as well.

In 1877, Bagby became the first African American to serve on the Indianapolis City Council. He remained on the council until 1879.

That same year, Robert, Benjamin, and James established the Indianapolis Leader, the city’s first Black newspaper. Because of its editorializing and Republican political connections, the Leader quickly gained a national reputation as one of the best African American newspapers in the United States, which made the Bagby name synonymous with success. The sale of the paper in 1886 allowed Robert Bagby to turn his talents to politics and law.

In 1888, Bagby received a Master of Laws (LL.M.) from Columbian University (now known as George Washington University [GWU]). He remained in D.C. after graduation and worked as a government clerk at the United States Treasury Department.

Bagby returned to Indianapolis in the 1890s and served four years as a deputy in the county clerk’s office. He also conducted a successful law practice during this time, which was located at 60 East Market Street.

In January 1903, Bagby died of pneumonia at City Hospital. He is buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.

Revised April 2021

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